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What is your advice about warming up a shy child who has to be tested or interviewed for private school?

Your question touches on a truly complex issue in the social realm. We regularly use terms that seem clear and simple—concepts that we are sure we understand. But if you have to pinpoint exactly what the terms mean, the concepts resist definition. Try, for example, getting five people to agree on the meaning of words such as “generous” or “happy” or “aggressive.”

These are the sorts of difficulties that are attached to the concept of “shyness.” While you do not have to get a group consensus on what the term might mean, if you are going to resolve the question you have raised, you are going to have to make some strides in defining exactly what you are referring to. For example, is the child’s shyness displayed in a low voice or in being silent?; does the shyness permeate the child’s interactions with all new people or does it tend to arise with certain types of people?; is the shyness related to some learning difficulties that make the child feel vulnerable or does it seem to reflect a basic personality characteristic that is independent of any difficulties?

Without answers to these sorts of questions, it is not possible to offer specific suggestions as to what might be done to lessen the “shyness.” However, the questions might be useful in helping you to consider your child’s behavior from an overall vantage point and then to use that information to determine whether the schools you are considering are a good fit.

For example, are the school’s testing and interviews a reflection of their placing a major stress on academic achievement? If so, and if your child’s shyness is a consistent part of his or her behavior, then perhaps the academic stresses will not be productive and it may be useful to consider a different, less pressured school. There are private schools that are more “laid back”  and hence more accepting of a broader range of children. There is the added advantage that those schools are often less in demand and easier to get into.

On the other hand, if the shyness is transitory and likely to vanish within a few days of starting in school, then the placement might be a good one. In this case, it might be worth talking to the school ahead of time and having the child’s preschool address that aspect of the child in their report.

The one path that generally should be avoided is discussing the situation with your child. This highlights the issue and often exacerbates the problems. Other avenues such as role playing at home (i.e., simulating the interview and testing) are also not  helpful in this sort of situation. They are likely to increase the pressure that the child experiences and raise the anxiety level.

It’s unfortunate that the academic pressures begin so early in a child’s life. Their effects are not limited to the school setting but infiltrate family dynamics as well. That’s why it’s important to step back and  consider not the narrower issue of determining how to help your child cope with the stresses of interviewing and testing, but the broader one of evaluating your child’s personality and talents and finding the school that will best enable him or her to blossom. Best of luck in your efforts.

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